Thursday, October 29, 2015

Debate Recap: Rubio Scores Over Bush on Silly Non-Issue

The news media decided that Marco Rubio was the winner of last night's debate, and Jeb Bush the hands-down loser, after only about 25 minutes had elapsed. A CNBC moderator asked Rubio about a Florida newspaper's complaint that he had missed too many votes in the Senate while campaigning for president. Rubio responded—in a well-prepared counterattack—by accusing the newspaper in question, and the news media in general, of holding him to a stricter standard than previous Democratic senators, such as Barack Obama, who had similarly spent time away from Washington while seeking the presidency.

Fellow Floridian Jeb Bush seized the moment to join in on the criticism, arguing "as a constituent" that Rubio should resign if he could not even fulfill a Senate schedule that Bush characterized as a "French workweek"—referring to the fact that most votes in Congress are held on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays in order to accommodate weekend travel to home constituencies. Rubio was clearly expecting both the original question and Bush's pile-on, and his jibe back at Bush—"Someone convinced you attacking me is going to help you"—was widely scored as a TKO in the news media.

In a bizarre and unsatisfying debate run by an assortment of moderators who alternated sneering "gotcha" questions with hand-wringing apologies when candidates inaccurately pushed back on legitimately tough challenges, the question to Rubio did not stand out as particularly egregious in comparison. Even so, it is a fairly ridiculous line of critique. The United States has an electoral system that requires presidential candidates to spend many months building active campaigns across a sprawling and populous country. Any sitting inhabitant of political office—even an incumbent president running for a second term—will necessarily balance the duties of his or her current position with the requirements of a serious national presidential campaign.

There is no evidence that Rubio's presidential candidacy is either hurting his Florida constituents or causing any floor votes in the Senate to turn out differently due to his absence; charging him with abandoning his responsibilities is a bit of a cheap shot that should be below the standards of newspaper editors, CNBC moderators, and fellow candidates alike. (Bush's crack about the Senate's workweek is similarly infantile; as he knows full well, votes are scheduled to allow senators to spend a maximum amount of time back in their home states, lest they be accused of having "lost touch" or "gone Washington." Whatever else one might think about Congress, the implication that it is anything other than a 7-day-a-week job is completely inaccurate.)

If Bush's presidential candidacy is damaged because Rubio got the better of him in their tussle over the importance of an A+ congressional attendance record, it merely serves him right for attacking "his" senator over such a silly issue. But the moderators should also share some blame for wasting time on a question that they know—or certainly should know—is neither important nor fair.